Not that the offensive was completely out of the blue. It was anyway public knowledge that this February 9 would mark the fifth death anniversary of Afzal Guru. The Kashmiri separatist was hanged on that day in 2013 in Delhi after the country’s highest judiciary upheld a verdict against the 43-year-old imprisoned for his involvement in the 2001 Parliament attack. Ahead of the anniversary this time, intelligence agencies as well as the state police had sounded a high alert about possible strikes anywhere in Jammu and Kashmir.
Then, just as the day got over technically, a pre-dawn fidayeen attack on February 10 killed six soldiers at the Sunjuwan military base close to Jammu city. In a jiffy, militants managed to show yet again that they are capable of sabotage at any spot, however fortified and alert. The raid at 36 brigade of the Jammu and Kashmir infantry around 4.45 a.m. also killed three fidayeen men and the father of a soldier, while ten others (including women and children) residing at the army camp were wounded.
Senior intelligence officials in the J&K Police say the attack was carried out by an Afzal Guru Squad of the militant outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad. Ahead of the February 10 encounter, the militants had written on the wall of an isolated army building in Jammu slogans such as “Afzal Guru” and “Go India Go Back”. In the wee hours of that wintry Saturday, the heavily armed attackers breached security and made their way towards the family quarters of the army personnel. The next three days were punctuated with heavy exchange of fire that killed the three militants.
The Jaish men were in for a long haul: they were carrying not just weapons, but even food. It was Pakistan-based JeM’s second major attack in the state this year—the first (January 1) being on Lethpora camp in Pulwama district of south Kashmir that killed five CRPF personnel. The Sunjuwan incident led defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman to visit Jammu on February 12. Holding Islamabad responsible for the attack, she said Pakistan would have to pay for the misadventure. Handlers from across the border control the militants, she said, accusing the western neighbour of expanding the “arch of terror” to areas south of Jammu’s Pir Panjal range in the inner Himalayan region.
That is around 250 km south of Sopore, which is close to the native place of Afzal whom the Congress-led UPA government had hanged in Delhi’s Tihar jail without informing his family. The “out-of-turn” execution invited objections from both the National Conference (NC) that then ran the J&K government and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which now leads the government. Both the regional parties had maintained that hanging Afzal will have long-term negative consequences in the already-restive Valley. Five years thence, the apprehensions are proving right: the number of local militants is rising. In 2013, the Kashmiri youths who joined militancy totalled 16, while it was 127 last year alone, according to chief minister Mehbooba Mufti. In fact, the JeM—as a baby of Pakistan’s ISI agency, according to intelligence agencies—has been continuously carrying out fidayeen attacks since its inception in 1998 (see the bullet box on page 18).
A senior police officer says the JeM believes that its suicide attacks on India’s army camps and other security installations will create an impact that would last for some time. “They have been quite successful in it, but the Jaish is not invincible,” he tells Outlook. “We have killed 30 JeM militants—21 in south Kashmir and nine in Budgam during 2016 and ’17.” The police assess that it requires cross-border infiltration to stop for the Jaish to discontinue its activities. “If you kill 30, an equal number will sneak in. It is not that easy (to infiltrate), but it’s possible,” he says.
Indeed, just as the gunfight in Sunjuwan base concluded on February 12, two militants tried to storm a CRPF camp at Karanagar area of Srinagar that morning. An alert sentry fired back, forcing the ultras to rush into a nearby building that they turned into a fortified bunker. The ensuing gunfight killed a paramilitary jawan. The attack, amid tight vigil, was claimed by Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT)—and points towards militant penetration in urban centres.
Only a week earlier, two policemen were killed when they were taking top LeT militant Naveed Jatt to hospital from the Srinagar Central Jail for medical check-up. A militant, who was waiting for 22-year-old Naveed’s entry at the hospital, suddenly handed him over a pistol. Both fled, after shooting dead the two cops. The police say the three-decade-old LeT is in “desperate need” of a commander having lost some of its top operators from Abu Qasim to Abu Dujana to Abu Ismail. “Naveed, after the escape, went to the Hizbul Mujahideen. This shows both Hizb and the LeT operate together,” notes additional director general of police Munir Khan. Naveed, who was arrested in 2014, is a militant known for carrying attacks on the police and security forces. Considered as a “sharp and extremely well-trained commando”, he “can dismantle and then assemble an AK-47 rifle blindfolded within 45 seconds”.
Of late, there is resurgence in militancy even as the police and the army continue with their operations across Kashmir. People in the Valley have a growing perception that a hard government stance against Pakistan and separatists booked under the National Investigation Agency has further worsened the situation.
On February 12, the CM was more than blunt when she told the assembly that security forces and the army should not be blamed when fidayeen attacks take place. “If someone comes to get killed and to kill, what will foolproof security do to him?” she said, and wanted the Centre to hold talks with Pakistan. Mehbooba further said the people of the state have been caught in a web of violence for the past 30 years and it was out of this pain that they have been demanding dialogue so as to better Indo-Pak relations. “For how long shall the people continue to die? For how long shall we be laying wreaths?” she said in a loud, emotional tone. “Not wars but reachouts hold the key to peace and friendship.”
The CM also accused the TV channels of using ‘Kashmir’ for TRP. “It will have consequences for the state and the country,” she added, effectively raising a huge question mark over the BJP-led NDA government’s policies on Kashmir as well as Pakistan.
Observes say Prime Minister Narendra Modi has entirely changed the texture of New Delhi’s Kashmir policy though the PDP—the saffron party’s coalition partner in the J&K—has repeatedly been calling for a different approach. They note that the NDA regime’s “hard” approach towards Kashmir has obliterated the space for non-militant voices, thus giving a new life to militancy. “It has taken Kashmir back to the 1990s,” says an academic, not wanting to be named.
Some experts argue that the Modi government’s approach has, unwittingly, snatched from the state one of its most effective weapons: fear. More than its weapons and war-planes, it was fear of the state that had prevented militancy from turning into a mass insurrection, according to them. Today, the government’s “militaristic” approach—resounding with usages like ‘all-out operation’ and ‘anti-separatists drive’—has led the people to reciprocate bare-chested to the challenges of loaded guns. “The situation is so grave that you don’t know who is a militant and who is not,” says a police official. The government’s constant refrain of ‘no’ to everything from internal to external talks has also eliminated from the minds of most people the hope that the country’s secular polity can one day accommodate Kashmiri aspirations through the tenacious process of dialogue.
“The Centre has alienated Kashmiris by using Hindutva as a directive principle of the state policy, threatening people by sending Sangh-affiliates to the Supreme Court to revoke Articles 370 and 35(A),” says the academic, referring respectively to the constitutional provisions that give the autonomy to J&K and empowers its legislature to define the state’s “permanent residents”.
“The Centre has also alienated those Kashmiris struggling to juggle their Muslim identity with undeclared Indian-ness. This has further reduced the prospect of de-escalation in the immediate future,” he adds, citing seasoned NC politician Akbar Lone, who has been speaker of the State Assembly, as an example. On February 10, Lone shouted pro-Pakistan slogans in the assembly when the BJP accused Rohingyas and other Muslims living around the Sunjuwan camp of facilitating the attack.
The Opposition NC bemoans that the Centre’s approach towards Kashmir has begun to discredit reconciliation as an evil; instead it’s drawing jingoism as the baseline of patriotism. “The BJP has itself ridiculed the government’s announcement of the new Kashmir interlocutor (Dineshwar Sharma). Even some key ministers and those close to the PM aren’t amused,” NC state spokesman Junaid Azim Mattu tells Outlook. “Between the optics of reconciliation and macho nationalism, the Kashmir issue has been made more complex.”
The policy on engagement with Pakistan, too, has been “inconsistent and unrealistic”, according to Mattu. “Amid the PM’s features of spontaneous visits to Pakistan, the government’s approach of surgical strikes and the BJP using its anti-Pakistan rhetoric during various elections, one wonders if the central government realises the grave costs of this prolonged stalemate and hostility. Their costs have to be borne by the people along the LoC and the international border.” The upcoming polls to various state assemblies will show whether the Centre will use Kashmir and Pakistan as electoral gambits instead of pursuing Mehbooba’s idea of a serious engagement or dialogue based on the motto of “war is no option”.
After all, Pakistan-sponsored fidayeen attacks have particularly gained momentum since 2014. Towards the end of that year, on December 5 (on the eve of the anniversary of the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition) six Jaish militants entered an army camp in north Kashmir’s Uri, killing eight soldiers and three policemen. Then, in September 2016, a Jaish attack at the Uri Brigade headquarters killed 18 army men and wounded 22.
Before the Lethpora attack on the first day of this year, Jaish’s Fardeen Khanday (who got killed along with another militant) had made a video urging Kashmiri youth and Muslims across the country to join the “fight against India”. The eight-minute clip has 16-year-old Fardeen saying that militancy has no connection with unemployment “as is being fabricated by New Delhi; it is rather a reply to Kashmir’s illegal control by India’’. Towards its end, the teenager, who had joined militancy in mid-September last year, hails Afzal Guru and LeT founder Maulana Masood Azhar. The violence keeps taking uncanny cycles.
Suicide Attackers Seldom Fail In Their Mission
A February 10 fidayeen attack on Jammu’s Sunjuwan camp claimed 10 lives, six of them armymen. Here is a list of similar instances in J&K:
- November 3, 1999 Eight armymen killed, as fidayeen attack Badamibagh headquarters of army’s 15 Corps in Srinagar
- September 17, 2001 Nine policemen of J&K Police’s elite counter-insurgency force Special Operations Group killed when fidayeen attack their camp at Handwara in Kupwara district of north Kashmir
- May 14, 2002 31 people killed and 48 injured, as three militants storm an army cantonment at Kalucheck in Jammu
- July 22, 2003 Eight army personnel, including a Brigadier, killed and 12 (including four generals, a brigadier and two colonels)injured when fidayeen storm an army camp at Akhnoor in Jammu
- July 19, 2008 10 soldiers killed and 20 injured when militants target an army convoy at Narbal along the Srinagar-Baramulla national highway in Budgam district after detonating an IED
- June 24, 2013 Ten soldiers killed and 12 injured when two militants attack an army convoy at Hyderpora bypass in Srinagar. The militants manage to escape.
- September 25, 2013 Nine people, including a lieutenant colonel and four policemen, killed in twin fidayeen attacks by militants in Jammu’s Samba and Kathua. All the three militants killed later.
- December 5, 2014 Eight soldiers and three policemen killed when militants storm the army’s camp at Uri near the Line of Control. The attack was claimed by the Jaish-e-Mohammad. Six Jaishmilitants also killed.
- June 26, 2016 Eight CRPF men killed and 22 injured when fidayeen attack a CRPF convoy at Pampore on the Srinagar-Jammu national highway. Two fidayeen also killed in the attack.
- September 18, 2016 Heavily armed militants carry out an attack at Uri Brigade, close to Line of Control in north Kashmir, killing 18 armymen and wounding 22
- January 1, 2018 Five CRPF personnel, including an officer, killed in a pre-dawn fidayeen attack by JeM militants on their camp at Lethpora in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. Two Jaish militants also killed.
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar